LAKE PLACID, N.Y.
You gotta love him.
Trips and stumbles, disappointments and dark valleys, nothing, in the end, stops Liam Firus.
He’s here. At Skate America. And he found out about this grand assignment two days ago. After a trip to the Warsaw Cup in Poland, he got the nod, jumped in his one-horse sleigh and drove to this sparkly little town in the midst of a winter wonderland.
He had won a medal for the previous three seasons at Canadian nationals, (a silver and two bronze), and then last year, disaster struck. He had a nightmarish short program, in which his suspender came undone at the end of a spin, stuck hands down on a triple, popped a jump, and tripped on his toe picks, just skating, so that overall, he dropped to seventh place, off the world team and the national team, too. With no Grand Prix assignments in sight.
“I wasn’t stepping anywhere right,” Firus said of his Canadian championship effort.
But, incredibly, he added: “But that almost needed to happen.”
“Of course, I was upset. I cried my heart out. I was heartbroken. I had medalled three years in a row and then I came seventh. I thought: ‘What happened?’
That whole year had been tough. He sprained his ankle. He hit his head on the ice the week before Canadians and split his head open.
After his dismal national experience, Firus left, didn’t talk to anybody and had dinner with himself. And then he planned what he was going to do this season, his last.
“So far, I’ve stuck to the plan and it’s been working,” he said. “I didn’t go into a pit and dwell on it. I was okay, I’ll be sad about it for 30 minutes and went out and figured out how I’m going to overcome this obstacle.”
The answer? Work hard. Listen to his team. Trust that they are right. Don’t listen so much to yourself, because you are biased.
His team? He’s still involved with one of his early coaches, Lorna Bauer, back home in Vancouver. He talked to her every week. Bauer keeps him grounded. She’s like a second mom to him.
And current coach Bruno Marcotte: “He’s awesome,” Firus said. “He believes in me. He makes me believe in myself, too. He’s that type of person, even on down days. At the end of the day, it’s about trust. There is a lot of trust in my team. And I think that is what is making the difference.”
So Firus set out to prepare himself for a bumper year. “There’s a good quote: ‘When you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail,’” Firus said. So he planned. He remembers that lonely night at Canadians and he uses it to motivate himself. “It wasn’t fun,” he said. “But it was good.”
He took to the Challenger circuit, a step below the Grand Prix. At his first event, the U.S. International Classic at Salt Lake City, he encountered a formidable men’s field: Nathan Chen, Max Aaron, Tim Dolensky and Takahito Mura.
Firus finished third, behind Chen and Aaron. Most importantly, he was on fire like no one had ever seen him. In the short program, he landed a quad toe loop that earned him some +2s. He fell on his nemesis, the triple Axel, but landed a deft triple Lutz –triple toe loop combo.
In the long program, he attempted two quads and a triple Axel, landed the first quad toe (12.30 points), and stumbled out of the second. But he landed that darned triple Axel.
“I’ve been saying for a while that my Axel is better,” he said “My Axel is a jump now that I don’t miss and it’s rare.
“It’s taken me eight years, but I think I’ve conquered it now.”
The end result of it all was that Firus improved his personal best by 38 points to a total score of 248.29.
“My focus was just to enjoy it and appreciate it and not really stress about things that have gotten in the way of me really taking in the whole experience of competing and what a joy it is,” he said. “That clearly worked.”
Off Firus went to the Warsaw Cup, where he finished third with not such soaring efforts. But there was a change to Firus’s mindset.
“This being my last year, I don’t want to be stressing the whole weekend,” he said. “I just want to take it all in and remember this year for how amazing it us.”
Enjoy? He decided to stay an extra day in Warsaw and sightsee. Relax. Smell the roses. He didn’t get home until Tuesday night at 7 p.m. His ice-dancing brother, Shane, picked him up at the Montreal airport and they went out to find some grub.
Exhausted, Firus slept the night, jet-lagged still.
At 6:30 the next morning, he woke up, and at 7 a.m., high-performance director Michael Slipchuk sent him a text: “Hey Liam. Give me a call when you can.”
Firus shot back: “Give me half an hour. I’m just going to shower and have a coffee.”
Back came the Slipchuk missive: “ASAP! It’s good news.”
Firus skipped the shower, thinking: “No way. No way. There is NO WAY.”
Every time someone had dropped out of a Grand Prix event, Firus had hoped that he’d be the replacement. And he wasn’t picked. He needed a coffee before he talked to Slipchuk.
“Are you ready to compete this weekend?” Slipchuk asked him. And Firus knew that Skate America was this weekend.
“I guess I can’t really say no,” Firus said. “So it was awesome. We confirmed it right there on the phone.”
Just as Firus was hanging up from his fruitful chat with Slipchuk, Marcotte called. “Let’s do it,” Marcotte said.
First Firus had to do some repairs on a skate. He struck off for the skate shop at 8:30 a.m. and by 9:30, job done. He trained for three hours, went home, did his laundry, packed and drove to Lake Placid.
What a difference a day makes. He went to bed, Grand Prix-less and woke up, having bagged Skate America.
He’s never been to Lake Placid. He marveled at the winter wonderland, here, with all the frosted trees and fresh snow.
Best of all, he has his own room in the official hotel. Athletes are usually paired off with a roommate. But the pairings had all been made, and Firus was odd man out. Does he mind? “That’s a bonus,” he smiled. “I don’t have to share a room with anyone.”
After this season, don’t consider Firus a lost soul. Four years ago, he passed his Canadian Securities Course. He’s in school at Concordia, studying finance.
And remember, Firus is the guy who passed up on his berth to the 2016 world championships in Boston, giving it up to another skater that he thought might have a better chance to get Canada more spots for men at subsequent worlds and Olympics.
In the same vein, Firus is the guy who is going to jump in his car, drive across the country and give back to the sport, conducting seminars and telling young skaters at clubs about what he has learned. Joining him will be training mate Elladj Balde., another generous soul.
“Elladj has so many different lessons that he has learned than I have,” Firus said. They competed in various countries. They have different technique. He and Balde have set up a lot of seminars already on the east coast of Canada, and they have a few in Ontario. They want to go coast to coast.
“We’re just going to get in our car and drive,” Firus said. “Even if the clubs can’t afford it. It’s not about the money. We’re going to just pop in and say, hey, this is what we’re doing. We want to help.”
And this is where his journey has taken him.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y.